BTS Self Portrait | Indianapolis Portrait Photographer / by Amy Latka

Happy New Year!  I don't know about you, but I had a great holiday with family and friends.  I hope yours was filled with special memories of people and places.  

I got to thinking about what I wanted to write about for this post.  I wanted to use some new equipment (a new flash, a new octabox and an intervalometer) and decided that I should take a self-portrait (the original selfie).  I wanted to challenge myself a bit by using a shallower depth of field.  I asked questions in a couple of forums about how to do this while keeping myself in focus and there were no real definitive answers.  Most people said they just set their camera on at f/5 or above and took a bunch of shots hoping for one to be in focus.  That wasn't good enough for me.  I wanted to know how to figure this out.

On one of the forums, someone mentioned using a string.  This got me thinking about using a depth of field calculator, because there really is no mystery -- you just have to know where the focal plane is.  You are either in or out of the focal plane.  If you know where it is (what distance it is) from your camera, you can easily put yourself in the focal plane.  

The next thing I needed to do was to decide where I was going to do this self portrait.  I don't currently have studio space, so I had to make sure that I had appropriate space in my home.  Once I decided where to set up, I just needed to collect all the things together that I would need.  Here is what I figured I would need:

  1. Depth of Field Calculator (I used this one)
  2. Tape Measure at least 12' long
  3. Tripod
  4. Intervalometer (I have this one)
  5. Speedlite & Octabox on a lightstand
  6. Backdrop (I used the back side of a piece of crushed black velvet clamped on to the rim of the half wall behind me.  I do have full sized studio backdrops, but no space or need for them for this project.)
  7. Reflector -- You'll see in the photos that I choose to use a space that had an off-white half-wall which acted as a reflector.  If I didn't have this, I would have needed a large reflector to help light the far side of my face.
  8. Camera, Lens and Flash Triggers  (Canon 7D, Canon 70-200 f/2.8 II L, and Yongnuo 622C-TX flash trigger/tranceiver.
  9. Photovision Digital Calibration Target

Here is my setup.  I knew I would have 10-12' of space.  The tape measure is set up so that the 10' mark is approximately equal to the SENSOR of the camera.  In other words, the end of the tape measure that you see below is 10' from the sensor.  This is really important because the depth of field is calculated from the distance from the sensor (or film, back in the day) -- or whatever part of the camera you are exposing the image on.  

Please forgive the awesome cell-phone quality snap.  ;)

Here is a closer view of the lighting and seating area.  Note the location of the end of the measuring tape along the wall.  This is really important.  Its not there by accident. ;)

I knew for this small space that I wasn't going to be able to use a lot of zoom.  I set my lens at 70mm, which is not only the shortest it could go, but also a good number to reduce lens distortion.  I wanted to shoot at f/2.8, to give me a fairly small focal plane.  In order to not make this a craps shoot, I used the depth of field calculator to figure out the depth of the focal plane.  Consider this the "play space" in which you can move around and still be in focus.  The smaller the f-number, the smaller the focal plane.  f/1.4 has a super shallow depth of field (often seen in beautiful wedding detail pics). Whereas the other end of the spectrum, f/22 has practically everything in focus at every distance (great for landscapes).  Since I wanted to shoot at f/2.8 I knew I would have a relatively shallow depth of field.  This is why the tape measure is important.

Entering the camera's settings into the depth of field calculator on the left hand side yields the measurement information I need (given on the right) to determine the focal plane.  Based on these settings, focus would start at 9.68 feet from the camera's sensor and end at 10.3 feet from the camera's sensor.  In other words, with my camera at these settings, I would have just shy of 8 inches of focal plane to stay in.  But what 8 inches?  Well, the tape measure marks the middle of that 8 inches.  So as long as my face was in line  with the end of the tape measure, it would be in focus.

I mentioned the intervalometer above.  This is essentially a wired camera shutter release.  The difference being that with a wireless, you have to push the button to take the picture.  With the intervalometer, you can control a number of things including both the frequency and quantity of pictures taken.  I set my frequency to take a photo every 15 seconds. I set the quantity to infinite (in other words, I would tell it when to stop).

Once I had everything set up, I just had to get my exposure set correctly.  For this, I used my Photovision Digital Target.  I simply hung it on an extra light stand and took some test shots to see where I was at on exposure -- adjusting my flash power and shutter speed accordingly.  Once I had the exposure correct, I used the test image of the target to set my custom white balance.  I can't recommend these digital targets highly enough.  Having properly exposed white, grey and black in your histogram takes all of the mystery (and challenge) out of proper white balance.  When you buy the target it comes with a DVD on how to use it.  This alone is worth the purchase price!

Now...we're ready to shoot!  Here are the results of my fun little project. The top two are a couple of my favorites and the final is a contact sheet of some of my favs as well.

And so hopefully the mystery has been solved for you!  You can use this method to determine your focal plane at any aperture setting.  If nothing else, play with the DOF calculator to help understand the relationship between depth of field and aperture (Av on a Canon system, or A on a Nikon).

I would love to hear about your adventures in self portraits (with or without your 4 legged family members).  Feel free to comment or ask questions below!